Celebrating their 40th anniversary this year, Between the Lines (Studio 277) is featured in the Tenant Profile in this spring’s 401 Richmond Update newsletter.
We decided to post the full interview with BTL’s accounts manager, Dave Molenhuis, so that you can get a more in-depth understanding of their publishing house and recent projects. You can check out the profile and Spring 2017 Update here.
401 Richmond: Tell me about BTL. How was it started and by whom?
Dave: Between the Lines began in 1977 as a joint project of New Left activists at the Development Education Centre of Toronto and Dumont Press Graphix of Kitchener. Both our original collective structure and activist mandate remain unchanged to this day, that is to publish Canadian-authored non-fiction on a broad range of social and cultural issues, to present new ideas and challenge readers to rethink the world around them, and to offer analysis of historical events and contemporary issues from an alternate viewpoint.
BTL’s founders created the kind of publishing house that could outlast others because of our deep connections to community and social movements, particularly labour unions. Our first ever BTL book, The Big Nickel: Inco at Home and Abroad by one of BTL’s founding members, Jamie Swift, cut deep into the corporation’s shameful union-busting, environmentally destructive, corrupt, and downright imperialistic practices not just in Northern Ontario but in Guatemala and Indonesia as well. The book’s introduction was generously provided by the Sudbury union local president and the book launch was held at the Sudbury union hall packed with some 200 workers. From then on BTL went on to publish titles ranging from early warnings about acid rain and Canada’s role in Central America to more recent books on culture, history, politics, identity, public policy, international development, gender and sexuality, critical race issues, colonialism, technology, media, labour, environment, activism, and social movements.
401 Richmond: What sets BTL apart from similar presses?
Dave: BTL is a collective. We don’t have bosses and we like it that way. That’s what’s kept us up and running all these years. Our political mandate is more important than any bottom line. We’ve never lost our core audience of politically-conscious activists, young and old. As long as there is an appetite for social change we’ll continue to publish books about the latest issues and ideas working to that end. Unlike many of largest publishing houses, we are dedicated to producing the high quality analysis of historical events and contemporary issues not found in mainstream discourse. BTL has no individual owner. Our press can broadly be described as the product of “sixties idealism” that is to say, we maintain a set of unwavering political principles and maintain both an office staff and editorial committee that make decisions on everything—from what to publish to how to run the place—entirely by consensus. Many would see this as encumbering or onerous on profits, but this structure is precisely what has allowed our press to endure—in a word we’re tenacious. At the same time we’ve ensured that our editorial committee maintains a healthy mixture of founding and senior members with several younger academics and community activists eager to carry on the publishing work started by previous generations.
401 Richmond: This year marks BTL’s 40th anniversary – What a milestone! Congratulations! What changes has BTL seen in the context of publishing? As a press dedicated to publishing books that “promote equitable social change” and challenge the status quo, what changes has BTL seen in the Canadian political and social landscape, and how might that be reflected in the books you’ve published?
Dave: There are several issues that come to mind, and in fact, we are in constant dialogue with writers and activists about what the most pressing issues of the day are. The most significant changes to our socio-political landscape of late, for lack of better words, are reflected in the ways in which communities that once felt safe, feel safe no longer. Or, at least, the mood and mentalities people feel strongly suggest this kind of shift. And the change we feel in our publishing house is that we’re publishing more on issues that we wouldn’t have otherwise felt compelled to publish on—issues we felt were done and dusted seem to have re-emerged. One issue that comes to mind is the Syrian refugee crisis. Fifteen months ago, we had a Prime Minister run a campaign filled with hate and dog-whistle politics that sought to divide Canadians on the question of Syrian refugees entering Canada. We had to respond and did so with Flight and Freedom: Stories of Escape to Canada by Ratna Omidvar and Dana Wagner, a collection that looked back at the most notable stories of Canada’s refugee history from escaped slaves from the United States of America to the holocaust and asked “would they get in today?” We can easily say that before that time we couldn’t have imagined the necessity of publishing a re-examination of such an issue. Certainly, refugees have historically been scapegoated, mistreated, and rejected in Canada but in the end, refugees have always become an accepted and integral part of Canada’s multicultural society. Instead of perhaps celebrating the end of our old ways or perhaps looking at the American or European refugee contexts we found ourselves having to publish a book that directly questioned whether Canadians have already forgotten our most important lessons. It turns out Canada is not as exceptional as we’d like to believe and old battles are far from over.
401 Richmond: What are some current challenges BTL faces in the kind of work that you’re doing? What are some of the rewards?
Dave: The most significant pressures for us unsurprisingly involve funding. It costs a lot these days to produce a well-edited book and even more when the audience is small because your book isn’t a romance novel, it’s an award-winning history of the working class in Hamilton. We make things work by keeping our costs as low as possible (both our overhead and the books themselves) while maximizing the quality of our content—meaning some of our books that are 780 pages long only cost $39.95. Our books are overwhelmingly critical albeit not always commercial successes. The reward for us is making sure the books we produce make a difference in the discussion rather than our bank balance. Our books are written and published by the best professors, journalists, historians, and activists we can find.
401 Richmond: How long has BTL been based at 401 Richmond? What originally drew you to 401, and what has kept you here?
Dave: We’ve been here at 401 Richmond since 2010. We were forced to leave our old Toronto office due to new building management that brought in a surprise renovation, which included both a huge increase in our rent and a reduction in our office space. We moved quickly to get on the 401 Richmond tenant waiting list, and the rest is history. 401 Richmond was a natural fit for us. The building’s owners based their vision on the late, great activist Jane Jacobs’ views on urban renewal which happily complement our own. To have a home that keeps BTL and other artists and cultural groups like us in the downtown core rather than being pushed to the fringes by high rents and gentrification is also what will keep our publishing house relevant and strong.
401 Richmond: Where do you hope to see BTL in another 40 years?
Dave: Existing for 40 years more would be good enough for us. But as always, we’re looking for action. Although 2057 is a long way away, we hope well before then to have made some progress, in this country at least, on the myriad of social issues we publish on, particularly Indigenous rights. We recently had occasion to publish the work of Indigenous activist Arthur Manuel, Unsettling Canada: A National Wake-Up Call. His remarkable book gives not only a comprehensive overview of Indigenous activist history in Canada, but a clear, practical path towards Indigenous sovereignty and that means control of Indigenous land. The struggle for Indigenous control of Indigenous land is an important one to our publishing house and one we know this current government is increasingly ambiguous about. We hope to make it as difficult as possible to ignore this issue for 40 more years at least.
401 Richmond: What are some initiatives or events you may be planning to mark your 40th anniversary?
Dave: First, BTL must acknowledge that we would not be celebrating our 40th year without a generous grant from the Ontario Media Development Corporation. We have a number of community events and projects planned to mark this historic occasion. Our plans include the release of a fully-illustrated publication—a graphic history of Between the Lines to document our roots and share them with the world. With the high cost of creating e-books and so many of our older titles available only in print format, we’re using this occasion to digitize and release for free one noteworthy backlist book chapter for each month of the year available through our website btlbooks.com. We also want to give the public outside of Toronto an inside view of our publishing house and share our story in our own words by producing a video showcasing interviews with BTL founders, former staff, and authors. We’ve also produced tote bags, t-shirts, and more all of which will be available online and at book events through contests, giveaways, and more (so be sure to make it out to our events or sign up for our newsletter on our website btlbooks.com). . Our biggest 40th anniversary community events of the year will be held at Toronto’s oldest LGBTQ bookstore, the Glad Day Book Shop at 499 Church Street on May 31st and a second community event is currently being planned for October.
To find out more about Between the Lines books, events, and 40 year history visit btlbooks.com.